Review: Wise Children

Theatre to the max… Wise Children at York Theatre Royal. Photographs: Steve Tanner
8 Mar 2019 @ 5.12 pm
| Entertainment

A theatrical extravaganza is playing at York Theatre Royal. The play is Wise Children, described by director Emma Rice as “a love letter to the theatre”, which it certainly is.

Wise Children
  • Till Sat Mar 16
  • York Theatre Royal
  • £15 – £35
  • More details

Based on Angela Carter’s last novel it is a sensational production in which the stage explodes like a firework display and where it seems anything can happen and it does.

Shakespeare, music hall, carnival, cabaret and circus all erupt as the twins who are the chief characters tell their life story.

The literary genre is called magical realism and this glittering bauble of a tale is a tribute to the style. It merges the fantastic and the real, subverting ideas about time, space and identity to produce a new reality.

Turbulent life

Dora Chance played by Gareth Snook in drag is the twin who narrates. She/he shares a turbulent life with sister Nora played by Etta Murfit. They are therefore confusingly different and this gender fluidity continues with the showgirl twins played by Omari Douglas and Melissa James.

At the beginning of the play, they are 75 years old and are looking back on their lives. Never accepted as legitimate by their natural father, they blaze a trail of their own, as dancers and showgirls.

He is Melchior Hazard, a grand Shakespearean actor, himself a twin, who has another set of twin daughters and a twin brother. Thus the Shakespearean allusions begin.

As Melchior, Paul Hunter plays a grotesque parody of a famous actor, monstrously self-regarding and vain and his 100th birthday party is the climax of the play. He also doubles as Gorgeous George, a parody of Max Miller with all the double entendre and fast patter which was his trademark.

Among the extraordinary cast of characters is Grandmother Chance, played with exquisite comic timing by Katy Owen; Melchior’s twin brother, Peregrine, at different ages played by Sam Archer; and Mike Shepherd as a world wandering rogue. There is Shakespearean mistaken identity, extraordinary puppetry and even a version of the Jacobean bed trick as part of the breathless action.

Caberet style

The drama is framed by cabaret-style ensemble scenes and dance routines devised by Etta Murfitt, which showcase Ian Ross’s versions of Electric Avenue and a bluesy version of Girls Just Want To Have Fun.

Vicki Mortimer’s ingeniously contrived sets have a caravan at the centre to symbolise these itinerant lifestyles. We move between the family home in Brixton to cabarets and Melchior’s mansion. The lighting design by Malcolm Rippeth works to create space and compliment the epic nature of the show.

If I haven’t tempted you to see this production, note that the BBC were filming there on press night and I would be very surprised if this dazzling play does not find its way to a West End theatre soon.

Emma Rice has found her voice. She creates a fabulous other reality in which we see an examination of fatherhood, class culture and excess. It shows the power of live theatre, which Melchior’s old paper crown somehow encompasses.